Not a teacher’s job, but teaching

Matt Shannonby Matt Shannon

For the iTDi ‘From the Teacher’s Family’ issue, I’ve interviewed my partner of seven years, Rieko, and her college-aged son, Yudai. We have all lived together about five years now. I used the questions supplied by iTDi and while the interview didn’t go astray, I did find the answer to be surprising.


Matt: What are some good things about having a partner who is a teacher?

Rieko: Positive points? I can think of some negative points. Positive points…you have summer vacation off, kind of. And spring vacation…sometimes. You get school lunch. I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything positive right now.

Yudai: When I was working as a tutor, I was able to ask you for help about grammar points. But more so, how to treat people and problems with respect, how to engage someone who wants to be taught without being “their teacher.” I also liked that we could have the same day off. I mean, Saturday and Sunday. There’s some jobs in which you have work Sunday-Monday, or worse, the entire weekend. [Authors note: I now work a Tuesday to Saturday workweek].


Matt: Were there ever moments in your life when you wished I wasn’t a teacher? 

Rieko: Not all the time! But teachers are so restricted. You’re not allowed to tell people what you think, can you? You have to be very careful. You have to sign a contract saying you won’t say anything bad about the government, and really it’s not a very good system, so you must be very conflicted about that. [Authors note: in Saitama City where I live, we have to sign a pledge that we will not work or be a part of any group which stands to undermine or threaten the Japanese government.] You can’t travel or take time off easily, you can’t get too drunk, you can’t be too wild. Teachers are so influential to students or other people, so you should be a teacher, a model, all the time.


Matt: Was there ever a moment when you were proud of something I did as a teacher?

Rieko: I don’t know how to answer this. You’ve done so much curriculum work; spent so many hours, Saturdays and Sundays, on vacation, always thinking about school, how to teach classes best – what should be and shouldn’t be. I am so proud of that. You made passports [authors note: special student self-assessment tools]; the time you actually made a town built out of blocks of students’ conversations which showed what was important to them. And then there was the time you made that giant mural with the students, and the green curtain. I’m proud of you. You did things. I don’t know how to make that sound better. You did things with your students.


Matt: How do you think me being a teacher has made life more complicated for you?

Rieko: Your eye level, part of it is always at the kid’s level. I mean that both ways. When I’m talking with you, I feel like I am talking with several different people. I don’t always feel your honest opinion on some things because you’re carrying all of these different perspectives inside your heart.

You always work too hard. Sometimes my job is easy, but you always have five or seven hours of too much work. We can’t share time, and I don’t like it. You work forever and don’t get paid anything extra. And if you do work only the contract hours, they’ll bully you and say you work below your ability. It’s a terrible system. You don’t really know your boss, so they don’t have to be honest with you, and they don’t give you a chance. They keep cutting your salary and making excuses. There are so few positions, so you have to hold on to terrible jobs.


Matt: Do you think I am well suited to be a teacher?  Why?

Rieko: In the classroom, you keep your face to students. You’re very good at that – they feel that come off you and the atmosphere is about their interest, not yours. You can grab a topic off of the students and play with it. You have to do that, I guess. And then you can drop the idea you wanted to show them into the students’ context so they can take it home.

You have the most energy of people I know, but it’s not enough and I am worried about how long you can keep it up. You can make students happy, but can you make yourself happy? Your expectations are multiple because of your students. You can’t stop it, so that makes you both stronger than normal but more responsible than you need to be.

Yudai: You’re friendly, you talk to people well. You can build a good relationship between you and your students. Also, you are kind of young. I mean, you know many things which young people like. You’re not dead yet.


Matt: Why do you think I became a teacher?

Rieko: I think you like teaching. Not a teacher’s job, but teaching.


Matt: How would our lives change if I stopped being a teacher tomorrow?

Yudai It’s hard to guess until after payday. Honestly, I can’t imagine. But, harder for sure. [Authors note: If I quit my job tomorrow, I would be deported sometime in August unless I found another job]

Rieko: [Author’s note: in the end, Reiko did not answer this question]

The Assessment Issue – Matt

Matt Shannon

I Like Big Assessment And I Cannot Lie
  – Matt Shannon


I’m going to make the case for qualitative assessment in your classroom, and in yourself. Let’s start with what assessment (in this context) isn’t: grades. I don’t really have much heartfelt appreciation for numbers on a scale, even if we make nice graphs out of them. What I do see as valuable are self-assessments, peer-assessments, “can-do” assessments, and all the healthy habits formed for teachers and students alike when one chooses to pursue a reflective culture in the classroom.


Results from the easiest assessment I know  – “Did we make it?”

In the early days of our city’s experimental curriculum, we tried a number of things to build up a variety of scales suitable for discussing a given student’s performance. Some schools

released a checklist in which a lesson was broken down into how many boys and girls we talked to, if we spoke with a smile, and if it was “fun.” A white space was given to capture other comments, which more often than got were written with a translation of “it was fun” in the L2. It wasn’t really inspiring stuff.

However, other schools found footing on a structure simple to the point of elegance: in the context of a specifically-stated and understood goal, ask if the students were able to  reach it. Responses to “were you able to achieve our goal?” and follow-ups “Yeah? Why or why not? How did that feel?” started to fill the pages, and with them grew a new and frankly surprising culture of feedback for all learners and educators involved.


Fruits of critical, qualitative, (and positive) assessment 

A note – all of our classes and processes are conducted exclusively with positive feedback. There is no failing score, no red ink, and no tests. In being asked to base our own assessments on the self-assessments of students, many teachers saw this as a head-scratcher with way too much trust placed in the hands of our charges. But here’s what happened: we quickly found that students could handle the task when our goals were easily laid out, and as teacher we found out a lot about our own lessons and teaching. Responses helped us understand what went right – the presentation steps were clear and helpful; it was cool to try on another country’s school uniform, etc, as well as our missteps. A tremendous amount of information can be transferred in something as formally simple as a “self-assessment.”

Moreover, directly linking to what students might says about themselves in regards to achieving goals and activities done well, we might ask students to praise their peers. “We saw a lot of great performers today, and a lot of people working hard. Who put in the effort today? Who was a little nervous, but fought hard anyhow?” In a really open classroom, students might volunteer their responses and praise publicly – and in line with a response that explains how, why, and of course by whom our goals were met or exceeded. In a quieter class, it allowed me to view the learning logs of students, garner a piece of sincere feedback from one student to another, and become the agent of shared praise. Finishing classes like that quickly grows on you.

Finally, we encountered emergent forms of feedback early on in the student assessments. These were comments in which the students linked the content and goal to another class, an experience outside of the classroom, or their own interests, opinions, experiences, or future. It’s these comments that were most likely to help my ESL courses as something implicitly within the community, despite also being easy to generate follow-ups to the did-we-make-it prompt. “Right, today we discussed the merits of two different places, and we talked a lot about what made each place special. Were you able to see both the positive and negative qualities of each? What’s good and bad about our town?”


Easy to understand and apply: Can-Do Assessments

When we look at the rubrics for major tests and skill batteries, we find items like, “student is able to solve for XYZ using a _____” – and then these get lumped into some composite score, most likely digested in the form of a number or letter. For anyone less than a maximum score, this can be sort of a bummer. As Japan has in writing for its future English curricula, we can make use of “can-do” assessments, achievement of which provides nothing less than a series of targets for which we can break through, and then use as a foundation for the future. Can-Do assessments offer systematic difference from more typical scores, at which only the very top should feel entirely proud of themselves. Think of a speech contest in which thirty skilled participants of roughly equal ability have entered, and only three prizes can be awarded, versus an organization like the Girl Scouts in which each individual’s merits are recognized and treasured.


The effects of long-term assessment use

As someone who has been employing self, peer, and can-do assessments for a while, I can tell you that there are finally some benefits unique to the teacher that I would never want to be without. As the establishment of objectives in the beginning directly effects how we may enjoy our assessments, I now implicitly plan my lessons as wholes, keeping an eye on the clarity of the contents, another eye on time or project management, and apparently a third eye on how clear it is that we are there with a chance to truly learn. I am absolutely interested in my students and what they have to say, and this attention is pretty contagious, and I make use of what I learn, and I’m doing this while being witness to people talk about themselves and their cohorts in a positive, healthy, and constructive manner. That’s a great feeling.


And now for a little self-assessment of my own.

I believe I’ve made the case for qualitative assessment in your classroom. I provided several examples in different contexts, and I was able to talk about it in a way directly incorporating my experience in the classroom. I talked a little bit about Can-Do assessments, which I’m still learning about, as well as self- and peer-assessments. It felt great doing so, because it reminded me of how I’ve grown as a teacher, and definitely as a listener. Whether it is the attention given to my students, my self, or the world around us, using this manner of assessment makes me feel wonderful. I hope you can feel it, too.


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Learner Autonomy – Matt

Learner Autonomy? Clap clap Nice! Whooo         Matt Shannon Matt Shannon

There’s a reason I love my job. It’s because I see people award themselves every day; it’s because I see communities built and strengthened every day; it’s because I send packages full of science experiments on their way to the edge of space… sometimes. I’m talking about Learner Autonomy, about learners enabling themselves to be the people they want to be, making connections within themselves and the world around them.  Learner autonomy is vitally important to me. Without it, I can’t think of a more boring job than “teaching”, and there are a few lessons I’d love to share with you.

First, do your learners know how they feel about their efforts? Have they been given a chance to reflect on their activities; to make the connections between themselves and their performance, rather than their performance and the goal? Make it happen. Grab it; embrace it. Consider this remark: “at first I didn’t understand, so I couldn’t do the activity correctly, but now I understand. I want to try it again.” Now imagine that same student without the opportunity to reflect and to clear their chest: how damaging would that same performance be to their relationship with the subject? In these opportunities students are enabled to support themselves; an encouragement and assessment fundamentally different from what teachers can give, but through negligence can definitely take away.

Give them a chance to write. “I talked so much. I wrote so much. I feel great.” Watch how it changes the class; watch how it changes you. Provide the opportunity for reflection and self-assessment. If you’re as lucky as I am and have a chance to read student’s work, it will truly inform you as to the effectiveness of your class, and where further strength and opportunity lay. Don’t miss it.

Next, have you noticed there are more students than teachers in just about learning environment? That praise from someone, even if what’s been accomplished is not technically perfect in its execution, is still just as valuable? I challenge of all of you to make the most out of the goldmine that is peer feedback and support.

Every situation is different, but I have found a few consistent elements when I asked myself “what worked in this lesson? What worked this year?” Check it out:

Visuals help tremendously. If you put up 40 student papers on a wall, and ask students to respond to three – oh boy, good luck. Try the same with even the most basic cover sheet – the logo of the company you wish to apply to in the case of the resume-writing, or a picture or three in the case of a journal entry, a newspaper cut-out for any sort of review or commentary – and watch things take off.

“[clap clap], NICE!” A fifth grade teacher I work with solved the problem of getting the whole class involved in praise. Every time we hear a cool comment, [clap clap], NICE! is to be heard a second later. (In my class, we occasionally WHOOO like cheerleaders. That’s ok.) In your own environment, see if you can find a way to involve the whole class, and back up your supporters as they back up the supported. It doesn’t necessarily have to be loud.

Group feedback. As discussed earlier, time set aside for reflection and feedback allows us to re-assess our performance, and in the process make something special out of it. It’s fantastic in pair and group situations as well, and leads to some discussion skills I can think of no better way to develop.

Make it consistent. If you ask students for peer-feedback in one session, it might be difficult – they probably weren’t looking out for each other as much as they could have. Keep it up, and they’ll be listening and accounting each other at no additional cost to you.

Give examples early and often. Just as I am more excited about a picture of a cake than looking at its recipe, knowing what an end product should look or feel like allows students to reorganize and make self-corrections and share each other’s strength – the whole point of groups in the first place.

Lastly, if you want students to look beyond the classroom, well, give them that experience! It may take some thinking, but there are ways to give them external confirmations of success. I’m so proud to say that I’ve had students recently send science experiments to total strangers half a world away as part of the PongSat program – look for photos on the blog with a triangular orange sticker, or a blue circle, that’s us! – and even though it was barely related to English I’ve got everyone talking about what they can do next.

Be something between a coach and a librarian, and help them make the connections to where they want to be. Have them write letters to actual people or companies. Find some buddies on Skype who are willing to be interviewed. Enter competitions. Go to the library together; go anywhere together. Find the ways for them to engage themselves with the world beyond the classroom, now. That is the point, isn’t it?

I hope in all this talk about reflections and success, be it personal, peer, or in the world, that you have found something of value. It was a pleasure writing this.


Voices from the iTDi Community 4 – Matt

Matt Shannon – Japan

Matt Shannon is an educator, cultivator and curriculum developer who works with elementary and junior high school students in Saitama, Japan. His goal is to provide real-world opportunities for EFL learners, specifically in the areas of debate, journalism, and science.  Some of his students will have an experiment launched into space soon. He enjoys cooking, gardening, and the life sciences. He likes to build things.

What are you passionate about, Matt?

I’m passionate about thinking, sometimes just about thinking itself. Whether it’s a purposed sort of thinking to help you go from a gut feeling or idea to a realized vision, or the unstructured process of seeing where you are, seeing what’s possible, and then seeing what else might be possible from there. That moment that happens a short while after you’ve emptied your mind across enough sheets of paper or blackboards, when all the new thoughts rush in? That’s the best, and we’re fortunate as humans to be able to pick up on that energy from those around us.  As a mind lives in a body, and a body in the world, our thinking affects the world as it affects us. It’s a reciprocal relationship. I believe that a deep appreciation of the possible realities afforded by thinking leads to increased stewardship to the world we live in now. Buckminster Fuller used to ask, “What is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?” That’s a beautiful statement.

What are you most interested in right now?

We’re only a few years into on-demand three dimensional printing, crowd-sourcing venture capital, microfinance, phone apps, integration of social networks, cloud storage, and dramatic reductions in the cost of hardware development, thanks to projects like Arduino and sub-$40 computers; free software has and always will be there. That’s a lot of barriers to product, social, or mental development getting knocked down, with entirely new distribution models for thought being embraced. Take a look at what it takes to get $20,000 in capital investment off of Kickstarter <>, and try to compare that model to anything that previously existed. As a kid, I kept wondering what the next light bulb would be, and it certainly appears as if a slew of them have been developed in the last decade. YouTube is only seven years old, and smart phones and wireless Internet are currently one in their fourth generation.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the confluence of learning curves for all these tools means we’re at something like peak opportunity.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a teacher?

It’s tempting to over-commit yourself, which is a behavior that’s just par for the course in our field. When I was less mature and counted every chicken before it hatched, I chalked it up to a lack of discipline, and later to a lack of energy. It’s become much easier to see why something is great for my students and surroundings and better for then than it is for me. I have to stop and think about what I can actually incorporate. The second part of that is that while I have gotten a lot better about managing myself, I still may have a cultural barrier with my Administration when it comes to adopting change. Opportunities come and go, yes, but it’s frustrating to know that something occurring three months from now may be too soon to consider. I have more than a few stories about this.

What advice would you give a teacher just starting out a journey of professional development?

I would join the nearest professional group relevant to my field while looking at what it is that I do in a classroom (or out of a classroom) and how I share that, and start talking from there. The process of writing a paper for your field is fantastic; you’re going to get some much-needed personal attention to your ideas and will probably develop at least one relationship right off the bat, and then as the commendations or criticism roll in you’ll be getting that many more people involved in your professional life. Small workshops or lectures are great; in the Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) it’s not uncommon to find open calls for 20 minute or less MyShares — which puts that many more like-minded people together. So in short, my advice is to get out there, and get your name out there not for the sake of having a name, but simply to get the most feedback and as many meaningful relationships as you can get.  Social media has made it a lot easier to form groups, represented physically or not, and there are certainly enough modes to digitize your statements, but they don’t represent the full range of physical environments and relations that a single meeting might offer. This is definitely a nod to all the conversations I’ve had well after the meeting has concluded, and to colleagues who have become friends over food and refreshments.

Is there any blog or online link you’d like to recommend?

For sake of this interview is as a good reference point for watching ideas bloom or sputter as any. I myself have a strangely poor habit of getting information from a single aggregator, but I make up for it in direct emails.

What’s your favorite quotation about teaching or education?

It’s hard to stick to one; “I hear and I forget … I do and I remember”/”We learn by teaching” always strike me as the most practical and frequently so, and there’s some funny stuff out there attributed correctly or not to the likes of Einstein and Twain, so I’ll suggest this one from Ellen Bialystok. “Literacy is the ticket of entry into our society.” You can use the larger meaning of literacy if you like, and debate what society is, but it’s a good one and the right message for my field.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Have a device on hand to take notes, be it paper or electronic, or even just start mailing notes to yourself. I buy these little notebooks at the ¥100 shop, this square 18x18cm hardcover unlined book with a flowery elephant on the cover being my favorite, and just fill them up with ideas, notes, receipts of places I enjoyed — stuff like that. They’re my treasures now, just pure alchemy, and while I’ve gotten pretty good about photographing things I like with my phone, there’s no battery or glare issues with these. Just keep emptying your mind out on that paper, watch it fill up again, and repeat as you like. If you’ve never been one to keep a diary before, then you’re in for a surprise the first time you look back at a number of pages with any great time that’s passed between them – how we talk to ourselves is pretty special, and in my experience these note journals form a narrative that I don’t think anyone should be without.